Ben's Logarion ☪

topics:
Humanities
id:
9b9d1a99-b117-4ea9-b4fb-21586cfcd5c8

College in the Time of Corona

Introduction

For my journalism class this semester I was asked to respond to a writing prompt about how the quality of our education has changed since the spread of COVID-19. Of course, this question has been of intense interest to everyone, as the closing of universities across the globe (not just in Iran, but the United States as well) has brought about a major change in the lives of thousands of people and the functioning of some of our society's most prominent institutions.

Sudden Closure

As was the case at our university, and I imagine at most universities, the closure was sudden; one week we went to class, and then over the weekend we were told not to come to university anymore. This meant that no one was adequately prepared for the situation that would follow, which is that the remainder of the semester had to be taught online.

This naturally brought about a sudden collapse of organization. The problem is not that we didn't have the necessary tools. Did we have Internet? Yes. Did the university already have the software for online courses in place? Yes. Were students and teachers already used to communicating online through resources like WhatsApp and Telegram? Yes.

So what was the problem?

What Went Right

Before diving into what went wrong, (as you may have guessed, this article is veering towards a negative conclusion) it is worthwhile to talk about what went right.

Of course, the benefits of online education are well known. Most obviously, we are protecting our health from things like infectious disease by eliminating physical contact with other human beings. It is the main reason why the closure happened in the first place: to protect our society (not just our individual selves) from the spread of COVID-19. While this benefit is particularly critical now, it is one that persists at all times for online education. In other words, even when there is no COVID-19, we still contract fewer diseases like the flu or cold when we avoid having class in person.

Another benefit is the apparent convenience classes online afford. After all, you don't even have to leave your house! When a university class starts at 8:00 AM, depending on the length of your commute you would have to wake up several hours in advance, get dressed, eat breakfast, travel to campus, and then a little while later travel back home. Even for someone like me who lives very close to campus, going back and forth every day means losing a couple of hours at least just to make it to the classroom. When classes are online, an 8:00 AM meeting could just mean that you roll out of bed, turn on the computer, and make a cup of coffee while it is loading.

And that is if the class has online meetings at all. Perhaps the class is "offline", and then you can sleep whenever you want or study the materials in the evening. With the ability to communicate online, instead of finding the teacher between classes or during office hours, one can write their questions any time and get an answer later in the day.

Thanks to the loosened relationship between time and space, a student can manage his or her own schedule more flexibly and does not even have to live near the university. With an Internet connection, intrepid students could travel the globe and read their lessons from Hanoi or Buenos Aires.

How It All Went Wrong

When we talk about the benefits of online education, we start to get the familiar feeling of something that sounds like an advertisement. In our highly commercialized society, we are used to the practice of making mundane things sound great. Online education is wonderful, fantastic, the wave of the future! But like all real things, once you experience it you soon learn what its problems are.

Let's take all the benefits I mentioned earlier as examples:

Yes, you distance yourself from airborne particles, but you also distance yourself from the learning environment in a very physical, very real way. You distance yourself from deeper and more meaningful interaction with your teacher, and you disconnect yourself from the social environment that a university campus provides. In the classroom we find a space made for us to study and learn, but at home we find a space for watching cat videos on Instagram and texting our friends the latest gossip on WhatsApp. Instead of being focused in an environment where there should be no distractions, we are forced to learn in the place with the most distractions. What are computers and smartphones designed to do if not distract us every moment of every day? If they didn't we'd be so learned that we wouldn't even have had to go to school in the first place.

So when we are sitting in front of the computer at 8:00 AM, not having bothered to formally prepare ourselves to enter the learning environment, are we going to give the class our full focus or attention? Are we even going to wake up at all? Maybe if I enter the lesson at 9:00 AM instead the teacher won't even notice, or while the teacher is talking I can browse Instagram too, as long as the teacher isn't addressing me personally.

What if the class is offline? Surely, it wouldn't make a difference if I read the lessons tomorrow instead of today. Or perhaps next week, or next month. If I have a question for one of my teachers or classmates, maybe they will respond tomorrow as well, or a week later. Who knows?

In summary, what we are really seeing is that behind the veil of convenience online education pretends to offer, there is little more than the dismantling of the university as an institution of learning. In our fast-paced, on-line world, we are sacrificing quality and meaning for convenience and speed. Yes, it was necessary for us to leave university because of the pandemic, but this situation cannot be allowed to continue longer than absolutely necessary.

Room for Improvement

Now, you could say that I'm being overly negative. As I mentioned earlier, disorganization was a decisive factor in the low quality of our online courses. If the university had been more prepared, if we had more experience, then couldn't we do it better?

The answer is that of course improvements could be made. Online courses could have been prepared in advance and not abruptly thrown together halfway through the semester. Some of my own classes did not properly take shape online until the last few weeks of the semester, and some not at all. Several of my teachers would change the time and even day of the lecture suddenly, sometimes on a weekly basis.

Fighting with chaos is a lot harder than it sounds. I tried to keep track of all my classes meticulously with a spreadsheet, noting which ones were online, which ones were offline, what platforms they used, and when the meeting times would be. The spreadsheet itself took more than a couple weeks to complete, and in some cases it was still wrong or needed updating later on. As determined as I was not to miss a lecture, I ended up missing many because of missing one single message in a busy Telegram group.

In my case, the only successful classes were the ones that were completely offline so that the material could be gathered and presented in the most orderly manner, or they were online but very clear about when and where to meet and stuck to a fixed schedule.

So can the courses be improved? Is online education even possible? Yes, in a more perfect form, absolutely. There's no doubt about that. However, what this experience teaches us that we can never forget, is just how important and invaluable traditional forms of education are. Organization vs. disorganization can make or break the process whether online or in-person, but as critical as this factor is, it does not erase the intrinsic differences between them.

Conclusion

There are many lessons that can be drawn from this involuntary experiment. What I argue is that online education is clearly no substitute for the old way. We need to re-open the universities as soon as possible or suffer the consequences.

Secondly, the major shift in perspective caused by being forced to move online does give us some better insight into how education works. Some of the same things that make online courses good can also make traditional courses better. I even have one teacher whose teaching improved because of the move online. We need not continue online education in the future, but hopefully we will take these lessons with us.